Pasquale S. Toscano //
Two events occurred this week. Surprisingly, they interconnected.
First, I was hidden away in my dorm room, studying for PhD qualifying exams next month. Second, I got a ticket for parking in a lot that was designated for “visitors” to Princeton’s campus. Scratch that: a warning, and a warning with no fine attached. But somehow that stung more, as if they–whoever these parking gods might be, to whom I hadn’t sacrificed the right cut of meat–knew they were acting out. That they had in fact seen the disability placard in my windshield, and–although this spot was the closest to campus, and although there was plenty of other parking available to visitors–were concerned only with my transgression, only with restoring the order of things.
To be fair, I have been put on warning before. And in fact, it was made clear to me at the start of this year that, as a graduate student with a valid disability placard, I could not park in just any “handicapped” spot on campus. After sending an email to confirm what I thought was a completely uncontroversial reading of the website-published policy, after explaining that eight years ago I had been struck down by a truck, paralyzed below the waist, that I now walk with a cane and brace–after asking pretty please, could I park in the closest lot to the undergraduate college where I live as an advisor–I received only two sentences in reply: “As a student living on campus you are only eligible to park in the handicap spaces in Lot 20”–and Lot 20, needless to say, is not the closest one to where I live. “If you need access to other places on campus you can take tigertransit,” i.e., the intracampus bus.
Both of these things–reading heaps of English literature from the Renaissance on a deadline and grappling with the asinine opacity of those who don’t understand that, yes, a few yards can make a difference, and yes, it isn’t so easy to wait for campus transportation when everything in your life already takes longer with a cane and a brace, and yes, Tiger Transit’s stops often don’t align with where I need to be–is exhausting. Tedious even. But there’s a difference too: the former can likewise be almost wondrously galvanizing, soul-kindling–the kind of work, yes, that nonetheless effects a renaissance of the heart and spirit alike. In contrast, even when you achieve your sought-after accommodation (and I haven’t given up hope in this case), the victory feels irremediably hollow. Discouraging that it was so hard to get people, perhaps harried by their own worries, to care in the first place.
I have used such overwrought language to describe my relationship to the texts I study not unknowingly, or as an engine of bathetic humor, but because there are moments when it becomes dazzlingly apparent that, say, Shakespeare is canonical not just because he’s an old white man whose plays can easily be coerced into the machinations of empire, though certainly they have been; or that mid-seventeenth-century poet Katherine Philips figures friendship in startling ways throughout her verse; or that John Milton–renegade and revolutionary writer–is the crip ancestor whose lines re-resonate in just the right ways every time I return to them.
Take, for example, his dramatic poem which I reviewed this week: Samson Agonistes, published in 1671 with Paradise Regained, between the two editions of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). By then, Milton was internationally known, and/or reviled, as a dangerously-compelling defender of regicide, divorce, separation of church and state, and free speech–not to mention as a poet who could hold his own, if not overgo, the ancients and his peers. But for nearly twenty years, he had also been blind, after about a decade of losing his eyesight gradually, a challenging process he discusses (or refracts through the lenses of different literary poses and personae) in three short lyrics (Sonnets 19, 22, and 23); his Second Defense–a great apology for the king-killing English people; a letter to his acquaintance Leonard Philaras; Paradise Lost itself, such as in the glorious hymn to light that begins Book III; and of course, the neo-Attic tragedy Samson, which elaborates upon the barebones story of the Old Testament’s Book of Judges (13-6).
Immediately in Milton’s play, we meet a weary and hopeless titular character–enslaved by the Philistines, who also gouged out his eyes, on the day of the festival of their god Dagon–waxing eloquent, and angry, on his sightlessness. It is tempting for me, now, to quote these lines which first impelled me to fall in love with Milton, reading them, as I did, shortly after my spinal-cord injury–to dwell within this poet’s intoxicating ability to evoke the despair that almost always accompanies at least acquired disability–and violently acquired disability, in Samson’s case–in tandem with the burgeoning cognizance that part of what makes living with impairments so difficult is the cultural stigmas affixed to them. Just as Milton in his own day wrote back to calumnious epithets like “blind adder,” so too Samson rails against his transformation into a spectacle, “[m]ade of his enemies the scorn and gaze” (34). It is tempting, yes, to close-read the extraordinary monologue that ushers us into this world which feels so different from those of either of Milton’s epics. But these first lines are not what astounded me on my re-reading–and in any case, you should discover their beauty for yourself.
What did, however, was that in a poem distanced from my own time by almost 400 years, Samson, this disabled hero (but not Milton’s only one, to be sure), was struggling with the same reluctance on the part of ablebodied authorities to provide for the equal participation of disabled people in society by at least making just a few, basic tweaks to the status quo. (I say at least because we need an upheaval of ableist ideology rather than mere accommodations–but let’s table this conversation for another day.) There is much that happens in the middle of the play, although it can seem scant on action until the grand finale (a controversial moment we’ll also defer to another time): Samson’s father Manoa visits him; his quisling wife Dalila (Milton’s spelling) tries to get him back (sort of); and then Milton’s original creation, the giant warrior, and father of Goliath, Harapha drops by to taunt the beleaguered, and ostensibly abandoned, hero. But along the way, Samson also learns a thing or two about surviving life as a disabled person with at least a shred of one’s dignity in tact–the importance of disabusing others of the idea that what he needs is a facile cure (as strategized by Manoa’s medicalizing mind) or pitying charity (which Dalila offers), rather than, say, reciprocal interdependence.
By the time Harapha saunters over, then, Samson is beginning to realize that the real first step to living with an impairment in a disabling world is to change one’s built environment rather than fantasize about having erstwhile ability restored in full. So after the looming antagonist has heckled him long enough, an idea comes to the onetime Israelite champion: “let be assigned / Some narrow place enclosed, where sight may give thee, / Or rather flight, no great advantage” (1116-8); as part of the deal, Harapha would also be allowed to “put on all [his] gorgeous arms” (1119), while Samson would best him “only with an oaken staff” (1123)–the signature prosthetic of the premodern blind.
Let me say it again, straightforwardly now: this is a request for an accommodation–albeit one to participate in a truculent, potentially anathema activity–and, what’s more, a prognostication that if the playing field were leveled, the disabled guy would actually best his ablebodied opponent at the opponent’s own game. (Note the deft, parenthetical, obviously mordant pivot from sight to rhymed flight in a poem without end-rhyme, by a poet notoriously antipathetic to the device–which corrodes ability’s lustrous surface in the process.) Now that’s a scary thought.
Harapha’s retort, we might already guess, is just as dismissive as the one I received, though, in all fairness to my interlocutor, far more egregious. In the compulsory ablebodiedness of the play, and Milton’s increasingly medicalized, early modern world–animated as it was by a string of astounding scientific discoveries and the reevaluation of time-honored medical tenets–Samson’s is a ludicrous claim. Unsurprisingly, then, the once-grand standard-bearer is fit only “to grind / Among the slaves and assess [his] comrades, / As good for nothing else, no better service” (1161-3); no longer can he even be considered a “worthy match / For valor to assail, nor by the sword / Of noble warrior, so stain his honor” (1164-6). “To fight with thee no man of arms will deign” (1226), Harapha summarizes, for Samson is “a man condemned, slave enrolled” (1225), and blind. These two denunciations bear recapitulation: first Harapha demurs from fighting with the excuse, “honor / Certain to have won by mortal duel from thee, / I lose, prevented by thy eyes put out” (1101-3); then, he reasserts, “To combat with a blind man I disdain, / And thou hast need much washing to be touched” (1106-7). Harapha thus dehumanizes Samson beyond even Dalila by denouncing him as unworthy of any rivalry, any relationship, suitable only to gawk at with disdain. Blindness marks the end of Samson’s career.
And the beginning, we might also add, of his posing a different problem. Two problems really: the hermeneutical problem of disability–which must be solved, defanged, rendered harmless by way of some interpretive framework–and the nuisance of disability that asserts itself in a world of people who feel they needn’t take the time to make that possible. (What, for one, for two, for three individuals?) Or who don’t want to. Or who are scared to.
In this moment of Samson’s appeal for an accommodation, Milton also poses a problem to his readers, most of whom are primed to understand the later report of the massive carnage in the Philistine theater (1596-1659)–carnage which Samson has effected, and which his father and the Chorus daftly, gratuitously celebrate–as the climax of the play. But what if, in fact, its real apogee is the relatively nonviolent request I have discussed here–and the requester’s immediate, visceral realization that such an entreaty will never be honored in full, or honored at all. In this light, the process of regeneration, and efflorescing self-awareness, that unfolds throughout the poem might lead not to the act of terrorism that follows but to this gesture of fanciful creativity undergirded by desperate necessity, to this potential for a new order of things wherein the disabled body is afforded a role fuller than that of spectacle–a (dis)order, in fact, that hinges not just on the accommodation itself but its larger stakes, and ramifications: the extirpation of quotidian, ableist complacencies. In this reading, we of course cannot forget Samson’s frenetic, murderous action whose recollection dominates the end of the tragedy–action which definitively forestalls the unethical gawking at his disability, but which must be condemned all the same–and yet construe it as an untenable perversion of what might have been, to what the plot, the introspection, Samson’s disability accommodation, all might have led.
Which is also to say, we cannot allow his bellicosity to obfuscate that, if only for a moment, Samson, and Milton himself, becomes something far more than scholars have often thought him to be.
I have left much unsaid or only partially explicated, of course: that Milton’s Samson is no hero in our modern–or even any conventional–sense (for his misogynistic stance towards Dalila as much as for his violence), and that the poet surely brings this tension into relief rather than simplistically endorsing the annihilation of the Philistines’ upper echelon. That Milton himself would have had some idea of what it means to receive accommodations–in the form of his amanuenses and friends (like Thomas Ellwood, in the attached sketch) and daughters (not an uncontroversial part of his legacy), and even from the Commonwealth/Cromwellian government(s)–but that our identity category “disability” was not operative in the seventeenth century, though very much alive was the idea of stigmatizing disability-like difference. That scholars have only recently started to “crip” Milton’s texts in any kind of serious way–and that I hope to situate the ideas I limned here within the context of this galvanizing, exemplary work as I revise and develop them. That perhaps this could be the beginning, even, of a literary history of accommodation requests, which are freighted with all kinds of imagistic, thematic, symbolic, and generic significance. That the person who resolved my question about parking is no Harapha–let’s at least grant her that. And that my request was no great act of disability activism. Just a meager attempt to make my life easier–and safer in the rain, sleet or snow.
But what I have hoped to clarify–what I was reminded of this past week while squirreled away between stacks of books, while sparring with someone who so profoundly didn’t get it that I had no idea where even to begin–is that this problem of accommodations as unnecessary nuisances or simply incomprehensible, this feeling of loneliness Samson experiences, that I was experiencing, is nothing new. And that literature can remind us of this damning continuity, as well as the imaginative feats such callous obtuseness–or for Samson, cruelty–can provoke in turn, characters’ and authors’ alike. There is strength in numbers, yes, but there is also strength in numbers across time, across universes–both fictional and real. Let us remember this. And let us assemble community, family, from this truth. Let us learn from the triumphs and failures of those who never came before us, but who also somehow did, as we speak truth to power in effective rather than inhumane ways, or try simply to ameliorate those everyday inconveniences that wear us down, tire us out, leave us in pain or asleep at cluttered desks at the end of our days. (This essay has been my attempt to do just that–though answers, as they often are, are slow in coming.)
Milton would tell us there’s not such a difference between the two.
 All quotes from Samson Agonistes come from William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon, eds, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes and the Complete Shorter Poems (New York: Modern Library, 2007). Line numbers are given parenthetically in the text itself.
 For the abuses to which Milton was subjected by his contemporaries see Angelia Duran’s astounding article, “The Blind Bard, According to John Milton and his Contemporaries,” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 46.3 (2013): 141-157.
 E.g., Amrita Dhar, “Toward Blind Language: John Milton Writing, 1648-1656,” Milton Studies 60.1-2 (2018): 75-107; Angelica Duran, “John Milton and Disability Studies in Literature Courses,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 6.3 (2012): 327-339; Susannah B. Mintz, “Dalila’s Touch: Disability and Recognition in Samson Agonistes,” Milton Studies 40 (2001): 150-180; and Andrew McKendry, “Blind or Blindfolded? Disability, Religious Difference, and Milton’s Samson Agonistes,” Imagining Religious Toleration: A Literary History of an Idea, 1600-1830, ed. Alison Conway and David Alvarez (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2019), pp. 58-96. See also the early, groundbreaking, highly personal treatment in Eleanor Gertrude Brown’s Milton’s Blindness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934).
Image: “Milton Dictating to Ellwood the Quaker,” James Barry, http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=40386.